St. John Orthodox – A Spiritual Treat

[img_assist|nid=133747|title=Sign at Entry to St. John Orthodox Cathedral|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=201]Summary
Invited to visit by a member, I enjoyed the company of this fine group of Christians at St. John Orthodox Cathedral for part of Matins and the complete Divine Liturgy service on September 21, 2008. Warmly greeted by another member holding a child, I was given a brief rundown of the service. She shared how “we stand a lot” during the service, then showed me a place on the back row where I might be more comfortable sitting or standing. The services were in a set order, with worshipers standing most of the two hours of the liturgy. And…I, who object to standing, stood most of the service. This was a service wonderfully accented by religious ceremony, a meaningful homily, beautiful choral music throughout, and a touching religious acceptance of several adopted children of a parishioner family that even brought the pastor Fr. Marc Dunaway to tears. A joyous celebration in the multipurpose room downstairs brought me into close contact with individuals of this wonderful group for further discussions of their faith. I can see why this church is rapidly expanding in Christian love.

Invitation and Visit
Occasionally I receive an invitation to visit a particular church. An invitation came from a blog reader/church member, Phebe, in July. copied her thoughts from that original invitation below.
“Your blog is interesting and personal. I see you have visited many Protestant churches and a Catholic Church. I wonder if you have considered visiting an Orthodox Christian church. The St. John Orthodox Christian church in Eagle River is especially interesting because it is made up of mostly converts. It is in the Antiochian Western Diocese of America. I believe you would find great differences from a Protestant church, but also that there is a reason behind these differences and all are related to ancient traditions, or biblical backup for lack of a better word. Thanks for the blog.”

Asking her to share a little more about why she chose St. John Orthodox, she wrote.
[img_assist|nid=133749|title=Phebe|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=100|height=150]“I’ll have to admit that it took a long time and it was a journey of about 10 years along with a whole lot of other people. That’s in itself is a long story, however, I did love C. S. Lewis and when I began to hear the teachings of the Orthodox church, it was the first time that what I heard made sense. Then, my decision has been reaffirmed, many times, and after going to an Orthodox funeral (several) and an Orthodox wedding (quite a few) I knew I would never change. Even tho there are cultural differences in many other localities, it’s good to know I can commune anywhere there is an Orthodox church.”

Warm Reception on a Chilly Morning
St. John Orthodox Cathedral sits on a small hill between the Glenn and Old Glenn Highway in Chugiak. The bells were tolling as I left my car to to enter the cathedral on that sunny, but chilly September morn. A parishioner choir member holding a small child greeted me, asking if it was my first time at St. John. She kindly explained the service in process (Matins), and the order of service noting “we stand a lot”. The explanation of the service was a first in my Anchorage visits. Offering me a worship book she admitted for a newcomer, it might be too much.

The church offers a visually pleasing interior highlighted by generous amounts of natural wood, rich colors and exquisite icons. A dome crowns the ceiling and features a large painting of Christ the Pantocreator looking down. The service including the Divine Liturgy at 10 a.m. was primarily sung and chanted.
[img_assist|nid=133755|title=Christ the Pantocreator Painting in the Dome|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]

Stand and Worship
The choir stands on the right quarter of the main sanctuary floor and sings without instrumental accompaniment. The music is Russian style with many pieces being in minor key. It was lovely and added a real touch of the sacred. As the service continued, people of all ages continued to stream in, including choir members. This is an “all ages” church with many young children as well. Unlike other churches where crying children can be easily heard, I was absolutely amazed at the lack of noise from the children. Many parents, during this long standing, held a child for over 2 hours during the service. Also unlike other churches, there are no other options for the children such as Sunday school or children’s church. What a wonderful way for children to learn about their faith and religious practices from the cradle up. Other churches might well want to investigate this phenomena.
[img_assist|nid=133753|title=St. John Orthodox Interior-Seated During Homily|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]

During communion the parishioners clasped their arms in a crisscross position over their chest when going to and coming from the bread and wine at the front of the church. The homily was delivered by Deacon Joseph Ray. His thoughts were well-delivered in honor of this day being the Sunday after the Elevation of the Cross. A most unusual sermon, he dwelt on repentance as being the avenue the early church took to combat the human tendency toward indifference. He further noted “Repentance has a beginning, a starting point, but it is a process which requires a lifelong effort. It is the taking up of our own personal cross. It is being willing to die to ourselves, to put others first, to put God first. In St. Paul’s words, it is to be “crucified with Christ”. When do we stop repenting? We stop repenting when we stop breathing. Sometimes repentance is a 180 degree turn. Sometimes it is a 10 degree turn, but it is always a turn, away from sin, to God.”

And the Tears Ran Like Rain
The service ended on an extremely high note with Father Marc conducting a beautiful religious acceptance ceremony for two newly adopted children of a large family. Based on wording in Psalm 2:7 “You are my Son, today I have become your father”, the new father of the children welcomed his new children with these wordings along with appropriate admonitions by Fr. Marc. I do not think there was a dry eye in the church after this touching ceremony. At the conclusion Fr. Marc noted the church was growing and needed to actively incorporate the newcomers in meaningful ways and would be sharing thoughts about how to effectively address this, in the future.

There was a joyous time of sharing in the multi-purpose room on the lower level after services. I discovered some of the members were not strangers, having seen them previously in the local Anchorage community. This orthodox community follows midnight to noon fasting and were enjoying some needed refreshment, coffee, pastries, etc. after the service. Phebe introduced me to many people during this time. My heart was truly warm as I pulled out on the Old Glenn headed back to Anchorage close to 3 p.m. that day. Only then did I realize I’d been there for around 4 hours. Thank you Phebe for the invitation, and thank you St. John community for your love and Christian hospitality.
[img_assist|nid=133756|title=St. John Orthodox Cathedral – Chugiak|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=350|height=263]
Stay Tuned for Installment #2
In installment 2 of this visit, I’ll share some highlights of an impromptu tour I was given of their campus, including the St. James house, location of an innovating and inspiring youth program, and site of a Thomas Merton sojourn.

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